IN A NUTSHELL [4/6] – Africa: Culture, History, Tourism, and Wildlife


Africa: Culture, History, Tourism, and Wildlife

My favorite part about visiting and studying Africa, and East Africa in particular, was experiencing the amazing environments, cultures and languages that exist there. I fell in love with so many things and people while I was in Kenya, and that love and fascination has only grown ten-fold with my various classes in African language, culture and history. It is impossible for me to go into depth of every aspect of culture that I have discovered, but I will proceed to discuss a few of the standouts in my studies. These stories and issues are the first things I thought of when beginning this paper, ones that have struck so strong a chord that I can recite most of the information from memory and with excitement. This fact only serves as more evidence that passion in education and work is at the forefront of importance moving forward. Some of the particular culture and language issues I have been interested in include: ancient African empires, the authenticity of popular culture traditions among the Maasai, power and gender systems among the Igbo in pre-colonial Nigeria, and wildlife usage in Mali.

Ancient Empires: Mali

My decision to minor in History came very easily to me, as I have always loved stories and cultures. Throughout my time at University of Oregon, my favorite classes were those that combined my love of history with my love of African studies. “Precolonial Africa” was a class that cemented this interest with its discussion on ancient and pre-colonial empires and ethnic groups that existed before the introduction of Europeans to the continent. There are many who don’t think much about Africa’s distant past, usually starting with the Scramble for Africa and later at the beginning of their study of Africa. Many also think of Africa before the time of colonialism as primitive and messy and so far from the civilized societies of the West. What I learned is that Africa’s ancient history offers a glimpse at some truly remarkable societies and kingdoms that were just as complex and rich as their European contemporaries. The ancient empire of Mali, which stretched across parts of the modern-day countries of Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Niger, and Ghana at its largest, was a significant player on the African continent during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In one of the more well known stories of ancient Africa, ruler Mansa Musa made a lavish and expensive pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, as the area had already been influenced by the spread of Islam as well as further intellectual thought. Musa’s pilgrimage is only one indication of the wealth and prestige that accompanied empires such as Mali. Functioning from a capital, areas throughout the kingdom would pay tribute in exchange for protection. Most fortune came from agricultural production in rural areas, as well as the gold trade (as the area was rich in the mineral). The empire of Mali is discussed in Kevin Shillington’s History of Africa. Respected and revered, the Mansa was both the ‘ religious and secular leader of his people’ (Shillington 94). This enabled the power of the rulers to be indisputable.

The kingdom of Mali is only one example of hundreds of complex societies that existed in Africa before the arrival of Europeans. It also gives further proof of the harm caused by colonialism. Africa existed as a continent of thousands of different ethnic groups, communities, and empires, and the Scramble of Africa and subsequent colonialism and independence disrupted the natural progression of the continent. Western involvement and colonialism altered the course of Africa undoubtedly, disturbing the existing groups and peoples and placing them into political boundaries that, culturally and ethnically, held no rhyme or reason (apart from benefiting the interests of the colonial powers).

Tourism and Authenticity: The Maasai

I have always been intrigued by languages, but thought little about the further issues associated with the spread and loss of various languages around the world, especially when connected closely with culture loss and homogenization/globalization. A class I took, which focused on language issues in International contexts, introduced me to my continual research on the Maasai, a semi-nomadic pastoralist group that currently inhabits parts of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The Maasai situation is interesting for a couple of reasons. For one, their unique customs have gained international attention:

“The world ‘maasai-itis’ has even been coined to describe the western obsession with the Maasai. Perhaps they are so well known because of their tall elegant muscular features…or maybe because of their simple yet distinctive appearance with ochre-covered warriors proudly holding their spear and wearing their bright blood-red shoulder cloak” (Youngman).

The worldwide recognition of the Maasai is both caused by and perpetuates the group’s changing cultural and economic situation. Land loss has been a reality for the Maasai since colonization, because as their livelihood was threatened (cattle), so too was their continuation of traditional culture. The question of authenticity really puzzled me when I first began researching the Maasai, recalling a group of Maasai men attending and performing at the campfire during my group’s stay at an ecotourism lodge on safari at the end of my Kenya trip.

In a study by Edward M. Bruner, three different tourism experiences of the Maasai were examined and discussed in length. He came to the conclusion:

The Maasai, of course, are well aware of the discrepancy between their own lifestyles and the tourist image, and they manipulate it, but there are many complexities in the situation. Some Maasai, who have in effect become performers in the tourism industry, display themselves for tourists, to be observed and photographed, and if asked, they reply that they do it for the money. They play the primitive, for profit, and have become what MacCannell (1992) calls the ex-primitive (Bruner).

Some people view this changing of Maasai communities as a natural progression in development with increasing globalization. Others see the change as tragic, the loss of a “traditional” and unperturbed culture and way of life. At a conference in East Africa, a speaker addressed the levels of globalization that are affecting the Maasai people,

“The Maasai are desperately adopting Western dress, abandoning tribal rituals and traditional Institutions and accepting Christianity, not because they want it but because this is what they are told development means” (Hodgson 84).

Yet, with the desire to work and sustain families in the face of threats to land and cattle, might a Maasai man be willing to Westernize his culture for economic stability? With land being controlled and taken away, tourism such that I experienced may be an only source of income. Culture is not stagnant, so what right have we to say that the changing aspects of Maasai life go against their culture? Bruner discusses this issue through a lens that is more observatory than accusatory, which I really like. I find it hard to pass judgements or critique other societies when it is undoubtedly not my place. The issues facing the Maasai and the way they deal with them are an example of how communities change and develop in the face of globalization, and the steps individuals take to provide for their loved ones.

The Demolition of Women’s Political Power in Igbo Society

Growing up in the United States, we learn that people are more equal in today’s societies than any other time in history, and still with a long way to go. What they don’t often teach us is that in some pre-colonial and ancient societies, social and political systems were actually more equally structured. In hunter-gatherer groups, women provided the majority of the food, and therefore held an equal, if not more, amount of power in such societies. It has been thoroughly discussed that Western intervention has undoubtedly and irrevocably changed the political, social, and cultural makeup of societies in Africa. Often discussed is the change in power from local leaders to foreign ones, but what struck me in learning about the Igbo of modern-day Nigeria, were the political structures favoring women that changed with colonial influence. Taking a class on Anthropological Perspectives of Africa was such a great introduction to the millions of stories present in the African continent, as well as the fate of certain societies as a result of Western intervention.

In an excerpt from “‘Sitting on a Man’: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women”, Judith Van Allen describes the traditional autonomy and power of Igbo women and the destruction of those institutions by colonialism and Western influence. Such Western influence and values that had the greatest effect on the disappearance of power for Igbo women during colonialism included the assumption by colonial officers and missionaries that politics should be contained in the world of men, leaving women to their “natural and proper” role that was not deemed fit for the masculine subjects of science, business, and politics (Allen 406-7). In traditional Igbo society, Allen describes that women  “participated in village meetings with men. But their real political power was based on the solidarity of women, as expressed in their own political institutions – their ‘meetings’ (mikiri or mitiri), their market networks, their kinship groups, and their right to use strikes, boycotts and force to effect their decisions” (399). An outsider who may presume that these institutions do not sound very influential in the goings on in Igbo society would do well to consider the fact that the society did not operate from a Western perspective, and the institutions in place were those with traditional and local history. In the described women’s institutions, there was a framework of self-rule that articulated women’s interests and forced resolution of their “individual and collective grievances” (402). Such power would have been at least somewhat maintained by British colonial powers, who used indirect rule, had they been men. However, because of the Western views on women and their roles in society at that time, colonial administrators made no effort to ensure women’s’ participation in these new “modern” governments.

This case of Igbo women’s political power is one that intrigues me greatly because it relates back to my overall theme of opinion in discussions about African development. The women’s institutions worked and were respected in the traditional Igbo society as a whole. Here is an instance where the presumed “savages” were actually doing it right. There was, in fact, more equality in this society than in Western cultures of the time, and with Western intervention also came a destruction of a traditional society that was getting along just fine before the storm of missionaries, colonizers, and organizations came upon it.

Wildlife in Mali

One of the most impactful instructors I had at University of Oregon was my GTF for ANTH 161 (World Cultures), which I took during my very first term as a freshman. Ian Edwards also taught ANTH 327 (Anthropological Perspectives of Africa), which I took the following year. During these classes I was not only challenged to confront my previous thoughts and opinions, but I learned about entirely new issues and cultural case-studies that I never would have without these classes. Ian earned his PhD with research focusing on patterns of the sale of wildlife in Mali markets. He spoke about this research in the classes I took with him and it challenged my thoughts on what I thought was a very airtight issue. The following is the abstract of his dissertation, “The Social Life of Wild-Things: Negotiated Wildlife in Mali, West Africa,” which I think best describes his conclusions:

Two markets located in Bamako, Mali, West Africa specialize in the commodification of wildlife, and in so doing contest western-centric notions of globalization. Founded in traditional medicine, the Marabagaw Yoro sells wildlife to serve the needs of the local community, while the Artisana, a state sponsored institution, manufactures fashion accoutrements from wildlife and is oriented towards meeting the demands of tourists. Actors in both markets effectively curb the impact of national and international forces and demonstrate the necessity of putting local-global relations at the heart of transnational studies. Malians are not weak and reactive, but potent and proactive. They become so by engaging in networks that move out from the two markets and that intersect to a degree. Through these networks, local actors negotiate and/or manipulate national and international forces for personal benefit for example, using wildlife for profit, despite national and international sanctions. As such, these markets are sites of articulation, where local resource users engage the world at large and actively negotiate a myriad of values as well as mediate political and economic pressures. Investigating these networks helps us understand the actual, empirical complexities of globalization while allowing for the agency of local actors (Edwards).

I used to think the issue of animal poaching and endangerment had no gray areas, that it made sense to forbid the killing of animals for profit, especially if these animals were endangered. However, my continual studies on Africa, including Ian’s research, have taught me that there are truly no right or wrongs. The traditional medicinal practices of the Malians are deeply imbedded into the culture, and animals that are killed for such purposes are used thoroughly and sparingly. What right have Westerners to condemn and create laws that protect animals used by the Malians, when the majority of the killed animals are used for Western consumption in the first place, with only a small fraction even serving the local populations for medicinal purposes?  Globalization has created a complex world system in which those with money are the ones in power, where those in power operate for their own benefit and utilize others to make it happen. The general American citizen sees sad-looking animals getting slaughtered because they are told that is what they should see, while the Malian sees an integral part of their culture and daily life.


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